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Social Justice Scholarship and Activism

Social justice scholarship is, by definition, interdisciplinary and practice oriented, combining academic research and pedagogies with efforts to improve the life chances of marginalized people, communities, and causes. Its intellectual powers are amplified by drawing on the combined knowledge resources of multiple disciplinary lenses; its effectiveness as practice is frequently enhanced by developing applied aspects of this knowledge in partnerships with diverse coalitions of concerned parties.

Whether motivated by intellectual conviction, civic responsibility, ethical imperatives, religious ardor, or loyalty to kin or kind, social justice scholarship shares a common value system rooted in empathy. This value orientation is expressed in the relationship the researcher establishes with the people or practices she studies. At the turn of the twentieth century, the German sociologist Max Weber described that relationship as verstehen or sympathetic understanding.5 More recently and much more expansively, feminists have framed the relationship in moral terms as practicing an “ethics of care.”6 Martin Luther King Jr.’s concept of “the beloved community,” which functioned both as a hopeful vision for the future and as a description of an interactional ideal among civil rights activists, takes this ethic out of the academy (and gospel) and into the streets.7

Maintaining sympathetic understanding and putting an ethics of care into practice requires activists and scholars to engage in ongoing reflection about the challenges, responsibilities, relationships, and processes involved in representing the lives of others.8 The scholar must surrender the hubris of the expert and, in so far as possible, become an empathetic partner in the work of the communities and projects she or he seeks to advance while, at the same time, remaining constantly alert to the fragile character of these partnerships. Partnerships formed with and on behalf of marginalized people, cultures, or causes produce moral, ethical, and methodological tensions that require social justice scholars to, in the words of social documentarian Robert Coles, continuously “interrogate” their own “locations”: the dispositions, motivations, and expectations they bring to their inquiries and activism as well as the obligations they incur to the people they advocate for and study.9 These partnerships also require recognition that some boundaries between people may be impermeable and that good intentions do not necessarily produce good outcomes. In short, social justice scholarship and activism can be a risky business. Moreover, its overt value commitments, in contrast to the less visible, naturalized value commitments of dominant research paradigms, makes social justice scholarship a ready target of opportunity for hostile critics of the approach.10

Social justice studies, as presently constituted, grew out of the social movements of the 1960s. In the United States, they were extensions of social activism, especially the civil rights movement, the war on poverty, the peace movement, the women’s movement(s), as well as broader movements against cultural imperialism and for human rights and global justice. Initial academic arguments for social justice studies were grounded in negation: critiques of claims to value neutrality by the social sciences and analytic philosophy that exposed the unrecognized race, gender, and class biases of established paradigms within academic disciplines and applied forms of expertise.

Social justice scholarship generally embraces the “new history,” which recognizes that knowledge is socially constructed and value oriented. The new history seeks to expand the range of knowledge into areas previously neglected or underrepresented by traditional academic disciplines. That is, its mission has been to discover and recover repressed voices and ideas from the past, as well as to create and legitimate opportunities for the views of underresourced peoples and perspectives to be expressed, disseminated, and heard. Realizing this mission usually requires openness to alternative pedagogical approaches, which decenter authority, including feminist approaches and pedagogies that draw on or are inspired by Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed}1

The appearance of John Rawls’s A Theory of Justice in 1971 and the many critiques and refinements it inspired served as a second impetus to the development of social justice studies. The most influential philosopher of the second half of the twentieth century, Rawls affirmed the centrality of justice studies to political philosophy, moral theory, law, and public policy. His philosophy of justice as “fairness” established that the capacity to develop a moral character is a sufficient condition to be entitled to equal justice, and, in turn, his theory provided criteria for assessing the failures of contemporary democratic institutions and nation states to achieve justice.12

Several international developments added further impetus to social justice scholarship and activism, including the dismantling of European colonial empires after World War II; the emergence of postcolonial art and literature and critical postcolonial studies; the failure of modernization theory, which dominated development policy in the postwar era; the proliferation of international nongovernmental organizations working for (and against) various causes, including social justice; and the emergence of a global feminist movement and its formal recognition, albeit often without requisite support, by international organizations like the United Nations and the European Union. The end of the Cold War and the subsequent global integration of the world economy, which some critics see as modernization theory reconstituted for a new century, also spawned counterglobalization activism, most notably the 1999 protest against the World Trade Organization in Seattle and Naomi Klein’s No Logo manifesto.13

Less dramatically, but more consistently, social justice commitments and values have for decades guided the international work of various religious groups like the Maryknoll Lay Missionaries, who work to provide basic needs to the poor in Africa, Asia, and the Americas. These varied developments, movements, and forms of activism energized fresh forms of thinking about international social justice. Indigenous groups, movements, writers, scholars, and activists effectively rejected Eurocentric intellectual hegemony. Sen, for example, consistently draws on non-Western, especially Indian, perspectives in developing his theory of social justice; however, it must be emphasized that he does so without rejecting essential Western contributions to the development of freedom of expression. In doing so, Sen avoids the trap of identity politics and develops a cosmopolitan approach that is deeply committed to alleviating human suffering and ameliorating global injustices.

Because of the interdisciplinary character of social justice studies, its varied currents generally flow in similar directions rather than flowing together. With some exceptions, overlap is most directly apparent in footnotes, bibliographies, and anthologies. What the various currents have in common is a shared concern for identifying and ameliorating those social forces and structures that systematically undermine the life chances and human dignity of some groups or individuals while creating unfair advantages for others.

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